The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

Write for Us
Want your voice to be heard? Submit a letter to the editor, send us an op-ed pitch or check out our open positions for the chance to be published by the Daily Utah Chronicle.
Print Issues

U Researchers Link Gene to Anxiety Level

Kiffer Creveling
Professor Richard Dorsky, from the department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, shows the inside of a research laboratory where he isolates various genes of zebrafish to look at the behavioral effects in the comparative medicine building on campus on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 (Photo by Kiffer Creveling | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

Genes may be a factor dictating levels of anxiety, according to a study on the brains of mice and zebrafish conducted by researchers at the University of Utah.

Yuanyuan Xie, who previously attended and worked at the U and is currently a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, initiated the study in 2013. Faculty and students from various departments at the U, including neurology, pediatrics, ophthalmology and human genetics, collaborated on the project.

The study focused on the Lef1 gene, a component of the Wnt signaling pathway. Richard Dorsky, a co-author of the study and professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the U’s School of Medicine, said he has been interested in this part of the brain since 2001. The researchers knew that Lef1 was involved in forming the hypothalamus during fetal development — the component of the brain that influences hunger, thirst, body temperature and emotional activity — but they wanted to know exactly what effect the gene had on the formation of the nerve cells and spinal cord specifically.

“We knocked out the [Lef1] gene in the zebrafish to see what would happen,” Dorsky said. “We noticed that a set of nerve cells were missing and then analyzed the brain to figure out which genes were not turned on correctly. Computational analysis of this list of genes led us toward anxiety.”

The study confirmed that in the zebrafish, the loss of the Lef1 gene led to changes in behavior. In this trial though, researchers weren’t able to target the hypothalamus directly, so they turned to mice.

“In mice, we could knock the gene out in just that part of the brain, and we still saw anxiety-related behavior defects,” Dorsky said. “The combination of experiments in fish and mice enabled us to conclude that Lef1’s function might be the same in many animals.”

According to the study, published under the title “Lef1-dependent hypothalamic neurogenesis inhibits anxiety” in the journal PLOS Biology, “Humans, mice, fish and even flies exhibit anxiety-like behavior despite the fact that their brain anatomy varies widely.”

The consistency of the behavior of various brain structures showed that the gene can develop many different pathways during evolution in order to reach the same outcome.

“Anxiety may be such a fundamentally important behavior for animal survival. Evolution has maintained a common gene pathway to build the brain structures regulating this behavior,” Dorsky explained. “However, we found that Lef1 can control the formation of different nerve cells in different species, meaning that there might be multiple ways to establish a single behavior.”

Now that the researchers have made the connection between specific sets of cells and anxiety behaviors, future studies will target mood disorders in humans, which they believe could be related to Lef1 mutations. The results of this study will be applied to better understand lithium, a drug used to treat bipolar disorder. While lithium can be successful in treating some psychological disorders, researchers are not entirely sure how it functions in the treatment of patients. However, as lithium acts on the same pathway as Lef1, these results are poised to better explain its success, and it could ultimately assist in the effort to develop new drugs to target similar disorders.

[email protected]


View Comments (1)
About the Contributor
Jacqueline Mumford, Managing Editor
Jacqueline Mumford is the managing editor and is pursuing a masters in accounting. She is great at Candy Crush, pretty good at running, and very bad at walking without falling.

Comments (1)

We welcome feedback and dialogue from our community. However, when necessary, The Daily Utah Chronicle reserves the right to remove user comments. Posts may be removed for any of the following reasons: • Comments on a post that do not relate to the subject matter of the story • The use of obscene, threatening, defamatory, or harassing language • Comments advocating illegal activity • Posts violating copyrights or trademarks • Advertisement or promotion of commercial products, services, entities, or individuals • Duplicative comments by the same user. In the case of identical comments only the first submission will be posted. Users who habitually post comments or content that must be removed can be blocked from the comment section.
All The Daily Utah Chronicle Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • J

    Josh PetersenSep 26, 2017 at 9:09 pm

    This is incredible!